Every Prime Minister loves a legacy – why else would you want the hassle of the job unless you fancied your portrait on the stairs of Number 10 and your name in the history books – and I’ve been wondering about political legacies recently, what with Blair having finally done one, and the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War dragging Margaret Thatcher back into peoples’ minds. Just what did our more recent leaders actually leave us in their wills? Well here is my post on the matter; short on analysis, long on bias, an incomplete and far from exhaustive trip around the subject, more an outlet for me to chuck ideas in the air and against the wall to see if they are ready to stick, like al-dente pasta, and to get my mind back into this blogging malarkey.
Thatcher first; because listening to some you would think that her legacy was to have almost sole responsiblity for the relatively buoyant state of the current British economy; for some it seems that just about everything good in the world can be traced back to her iconoclastic premiership. You won’t be too surprised to find that I disagree with this point of view. It is not that she was wholly wrong on everything, just mainly wrong on most things. I like the analogy (and I hope you like it too) of someone being stuck in the house and needing to buy some bread. If someone were to suggest that you get up off your arse and open the front door then they would be spot on; but if they then directed you to the butcher’s, rather than to the baker’s, then they’ve not really helped you all that much. Sure, they’ve forced you to get a bit of fresh air, and by wandering aimlessly, or asking around, you may eventually find your way to the baker’s yourself; but who should take the credit for this eventual happy outcome? In effect I think that is what Thatcher did; even when she was right she was wrong. And most of the time she was just plain wrong.
So; she was right to challenge the unions (and other vested interests), but wrong to bully them and use them as her personal whipping boys; she was right to offer up privatisation as a solution, but wrong to indulge in ill-conceived and poorly executed sell-offs for the sake of ideology and/or financial expediency; it may have been right to promote home ownership, but to force councils to all but give away their housing stock as part of a policy of social engineering, and to then hinder their replacement, was bollocks. And if that latter move was a way to inculcate people into the ways of property rights rather than state dependency then it was completely undone by Thatcher’s economic policy that shrugged off mass, long-term unemployment as just one of those things, so forcing a generation and their children to regard social security benefits and the welfare state not as a safety net but as an essential, primary source of income, and so a viable way of living.
Andrew Neil on This Week recently wondered if there was a change in the air with regards Thatcher; that perhaps she was being re-evaluated, that her achievements were gaining more appreciation and recognition. Wishful thinking I suspect. For a start, even when in power she was never quite the universal hate figure you would imagine from viewing grainy archive footage of Red Wedge concerts. Amongst a large section of the population she was enormously popular during her period in office; add to this group all of the people aged 25 or under who can’t really remember her, and also the fact that she has been out of power for 17 years, and it isn’t that surprising that there is less animosity towards her than there used to be. This doesn’t mean that those who opposed her at the time are suddenly affording her more respect, have forgiven her or altered their opinion of her. In any case; even if you can point to some good things that she did, now that her government is but a dot in the rear view mirror, and if you can accept that she has bequeathed us all some long-term benefits, it still doesn’t mean we have erased from our minds what it was like to actually have that rabble in power, day-in-day-out, and to live under the rule of a bunch of authoritarian, reactionary bigots.
It was John Major who had to deal with Thatcher’s immediate legacy – a dysfunctional economy, just one more Tory recession – and by hook, crook, luck and judgement actually turned it around. That is to his government’s credit. Even more important is that he then successfully lost the 1997 election before he was able to bugger things up in turn, as I am sure he would have done. That is his lasting legacy; to have presided over a reasonably benign economic situation and to have then fucked off before he fucked it up.
And so to Blair; what has he left us? Well on the plus side there has been continued economic stability (more Brown’s achievement than Blair’s), some constitutional reforms (inherited from John Smith, and in the case of the House of Lords Blair has acted more as a brake than an accelerator), and of course Northern Ireland (although has he actually done more than any previous Prime Minister, or have things just happened on his watch? And am I the only one to feel uneasy about seeing Paisley and McGuinness grinning together at Stormont?) But I think it will be for his failures, rather than his successes, that we will remember Blair by; it goes without saying that he will mainly be associated with Iraq and spin.
For a while it looked as if Blair could escape the rigours of domestic politics to emerge statesmanlike in the black-and-white simplicity of foreign affairs, through Sierra Leone and Kosovo; that is until Iraq turned around and bit him on the arse. Blair’s name will be forever entwined with the conflict as Eden’s is with Suez, or LBJ’s is with Vietnam. To seek refuge in war from the failings of your domestic policies is an act of pure horror, and Blair’s ultimate failure will at least make others think twice. Regarding spin and media manipulation, and his abilities as an actor; these are all things that are no doubt required in the modern politician’s armoury, but they are not good things for a politician to be closely associated with. Blair is indeed feted, if that is the right word, as a fine actor; but as an actor he makes a really great politician. His “act” is often so transparent that he appears about as sincere as Fiona Bruce, as convincing as an extra on Casualty. When you watch the great actors you don’t think “what a great actor”, you believe in them implicitly; but with Blair we knew we were getting an act, and we were wise to it. We will now watch out more keenly for the same thing in Brown, Cameron and other politicians; and that is a surely good thing.
But it is one particular failure in the whole spin farrago that I believe is in fact Blair’s greatest success. It was probably true, after the 1992 election, that Labour had to work hard to get the press on their side, and they managed it; even the Daily Mail clambered aboard. Today of course the Mail views itself as almost the official opposition to government, representing a silent majority in the country ignored by the political parties; but things were not always this way. Back during the Thatcher years the Mail was right in step with government policy, their brand of narrow-minded intolerance was perfectly in tune with those whose hands were on the levers of power. Instead the targets of the Mail’s ire were loony lefty councils and the like; the inequities of central government went unchallenged. After Thatcher, eventual disillusion with the then Major government that was “in office but not in power” and a vested interest in supporting the government-elect Labour Party that promised to be just like the Tories led the Mail to swing behind Blair; but once in government the honeymoon period soured when the Mail realised that Labour, for all their faults, weren’t quite as twattish as the Tories. So it is that today, in contrast to the tub-thumping of the Thatcher years, the hurt disappointment of the Major years, and the naïve hopes of the early Blair years, the Mail has settled into a vehement hatred of and implacable opposition to the government; and that is surely how it should always be. Those furious red-faced and indignant little/middle Englanders should always be out of power, should always feel antagonised by whatever the government proposes; never again should the government manifesto and the Daily Mail editorial have anything in common. Blair’s greatest legacy is that Daily Mail readers, far from being the self-styled silent majority they claim to be, are in reality just marginalised malcontents. Let us not squander his inadvertant achievement; and while Brown is a dour Scot who clobbers the middle classes with stealth taxes, while Cameron hugs hoodies, huskies and haters of grammar schools, and while Menzies Campbell is a Liberal Democrat, at least on this one small thing the future still looks bright.